Human Rights in Bangladesh: Excerpts from Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora, 2011
There were four major developments/incidents that occurred in Bangladesh in 2011 that were emblematic of the state of affairs in this South Asian nation. The first significant event was Parliament’s passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, which retains Islam as the state religion and makes explicit reference to the Koranic invocation -- Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim, or “In the name of Allah (God), Most Merciful, Most Gracious.”
Another development representative of the growing influence of Islamism across the country was the enforcement of Islamic blasphemy injunctions in the academic setting. In one particular incident, a Hindu teacher, Shankar Biswas, was fired after students alleged he made a blasphemous remark against the Prophet Mohammed. While most news reports failed to mention the details of the incident, a local daily, Amar Desh, noted that it was a harmless exchange between Mr. Biswas and his students, which started when Mr. Biswas called a student with a small beard a “goat” for not answering a simple question. Some students challenged the teacher by asking him whether Bengali Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore was a “big goat” because he sported a big beard, to which the teacher responded that Prophet Mohammed could also be called a goat because he sported a beard. Similarly, a group of pro-Sharia parties also demanded the ouster of a Hindu assistant principal for allegedly making blasphemous remarks.
The third notable event concerned the findings of a judicial commission tasked with probing the post election violence of 2001, when Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) workers carried out a systematic campaign of rape, murder, and intimidation against Hindus. The commission found that 26,352 people, including 25 ministers and lawmakers of the previous BNP-Jamaat alliance government, were involved in perpetrating the violence. According to the commission, there were more than 18,000 incidents of major crimes, including murder, rape, arson, and looting by members of the then ruling BNP-Jamaat alliance in the 15 months following the elections in October 2001. The commission’s findings demonstrate the extensive nature of state sponsored violence against the Hindu community in Bangladesh.
The fourth major development was the passage of the Vested Properties Return (Amendment) Bill 2011, which theoretically enables Hindus to reclaim land and property confiscated by the government or occupied by Muslims under the Vested Property Act of 1974, Enemy Property Act 1965 (by Pakistan), and other discriminatory property laws implemented by Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947. The new legislation, however, does not clearly address how the previously seized properties will be returned and it is uncertain whether the Bill will be effectively implemented. This latest Bill may thus become yet another in a series of laws that have failed to return confiscated properties and end the ongoing encroachment of Hindu owned land.
Collectively, these four developments demonstrate the enduring vulnerability of Bangladesh’s minority populations, particularly Hindus, who have borne the brunt of the discrimination and oppression by successive governments in East Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The election of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party on January 6, 2009 was hailed as a victory for secular forces and a defeat for the pro-Islamist BNP led by Khaleda Zia. It was also expected to bring about a significant change in the conditions of minorities. This led the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to remove Bangladesh from its list of “Countries of Particular Concern” in May 2009, although HAF argued that the ground realities had not substantially changed.
While there has been a reduction in the number of incidents of violence against minorities since Hasina came to power, Hindus and other non-Muslims continue to be plagued by many of the same issues. HAF, however, commends the recent legislative initiatives to abolish the Vested Property Act (VPA), but still awaits effective application of the Bill, including the publication of a list containing details (name, address, amount of land, and other assets dispossessed by type and year of dispossession, and current status) of those affected by the Act.
In addition, the establishment of a War Crimes Tribunal in 2010 to bring to trial those accused of rape, murder, and genocide during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence in 1971 was a positive step. The Hasina government has decided to set up another tribunal to hasten the trial and prosecution of those who committed crimes. Thus far, the tribunal has introduced 20 specific war crimes charges against Jamaat-e Islami leader Delawar Hossain Sayedee, and is now hearing depositions of the prosecution witnesses in the case. As crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide constitute severe violations of international law, some have argued for the inclusion of international judges in the tribunal to assist the Bangladeshi judges in conducting careful and impartial hearings.
Bangladesh was created in 1971 from the eastern wing of Pakistan. Its predominantly Bengali population won independence from Pakistan after the India-Pakistan War of 1971. The conflict was preceded by the massacre of an estimated two million East Pakistani citizens and the ethnic cleansing of 10 million ethnic Bengalis (mainly Hindus) who fled to India. In the summary of his report on the events dated November 1, 1971, the late U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (D - Massachusetts) wrote:
Field reports to the U.S. Government, countless eye-witness journalistic accounts, reports of International agencies such as World Bank and additional information available to the subcommittee document the reign of terror which grips East Bengal (East Pakistan). Hardest hit have been members of the Hindu community who have been robbed of their lands and shops, systematically slaughtered, and in some places, painted with yellow patches marked ‘H’. All of this has been officially sanctioned, ordered and implemented under martial law from Islamabad.
Furthermore, according to then American Consul-General and senior U.S. diplomat in Dhaka, Archer Blood, the Pakistani military was engaged in the “mass killing of unarmed civilians, the systematic elimination of the intelligentsia and the annihilation of the Hindu population.” Quite remarkably, this genocide has been largely erased from public memory and most of the perpetrators have escaped unpunished, though identified in an official report. As mentioned above, the recent establishment of a War Crimes Tribunal is a positive step and hopefully will result in justice for the brutal crimes committed during the 1971 war.
Unfortunately, the Western media still continues to downplay the extent and nature of the 1971 genocide. For example, in January 2011, a BBC report on the War Crimes Tribunal stated, “…thousands of people are believed to have died in the 1971 war, which culminated in the country's independence from Pakistan,” ignoring the fact that estimates by human rights groups place the number of fatalities upwards of two million, the number of women raped at 200,000, and the number of refugees in the tens of millions. Moreover, 53 different types of crimes were reportedly committed in approximately 5,000 locations throughout the country.
In addition, a recent book by Professor Sarmila Bose has led to further Western re-evaluation of the 1971 genocide by claiming that only between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians were killed by Pakistani forces and their East Pakistan abettors during the 1971 war. Human rights scholar Naeem Mohaiemen, however, argues, “Bose’s text broadly accepts the Pakistani narrative, without any challenge, and with sympathetic commentary. A close reading of her essays and the book shows that, since 2003, an informal club of retired Pakistan Army officers has successfully been able to charm her. The Bengali side, on the other hand, earned her ire and condescension which comes through in her subtle undermining of their stories.” Naeem’s indictment of Bose’s work as “Bangladeshi history, minus Bangladeshis” is in sharp contrast to the praise for Bose’s work received from many Western academics. Bose’s book and the resulting praise, however, implicitly provide justification for the atrocities committed by Pakistan’s military and make calls for accountability and justice increasingly difficult.
After independence, Bangladesh initially adopted a constitution with its basic structure ensuring “Nationalism, Secularism, Socialism and Democracy.” In April 23, 1977, however, Bangladesh renounced its commitment to secularism by amending the Constitution to reflect a greater role for Islam in the national body politic. A new clause was appended to the Constitution, which affirmed, “The state shall endeavor to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity.” Furthermore, on June 9, 1988, the Constitution was amended again, making Islam the state religion and prescribing that the principle of absolute trust and faith in Allah would be the basis of all action. These actions began a steady and gradual move towards Islamization, resulting in increased discrimination and persecution of minorities, particularly Hindus.
The process of Islamization rapidly expanded in 2001 with the election of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, and its Islamist allies. Following the elections, the BNP coalition and its supporters unleashed a large-scale campaign of violence targeting the Hindu community that lasted more than 150 days. During that period, there were reportedly more than 10,000 cases of human rights abuses committed against minorities. According to Refugees International, “Scores of Hindu women and girls were raped. In some cases, they were gang raped in front of their male relatives. Hindus were also assaulted on the streets, in their homes and at their workplaces. Systematic attacks resulted in a mass migration of Hindus to India and, in particular, to the bordering state of Tripura. The government did little to prosecute or investigate the violence.” Global Human Rights Defence estimates that approximately 500,000 Hindus sought refuge in India following the election violence. In May 2009, a Bangladesh high court ordered the government to institute a commission to inquire into this violence, and the Hasina government created a three-member commission to investigate the attacks against minorities after the BNP’s 2001 election victory
During the five-year rule of the BNP-led coalition, Bangladesh witnessed the increased role of Islam in politics and an explosion of madrasas (Islamic seminaries) teaching the same fundamentalist version of Islam that inspired the Taliban.
The massive proliferation of madrasas, estimated at 64,000, was seen as an intentional effort to change “Bangladesh’s culture of religious tolerance.” Moreover, activity by Muslim militants and radical organizations significantly increased during the Khaleda regime.
Decline of the Hindu Population
At the time of Partition in 1947, the Hindu population in what is now Bangladesh was approximately 31%. By 1961, Hindus comprised 19% of the population, and by 1974, the Hindu community had further declined to 14%. According to Saleem Samad, a journalist and human rights observer, in 1991, the Hindu population in Bangladesh should have been 32.5 million, considering normal rates of growth. The actual population was only 12.5 million. By this calculation, the number of Hindus missing from Bangladesh over the two decades ending in 1991 is 20 million. This figure includes both those persons killed or forced to flee the country. The number of Hindus who fled Bangladesh between 1964 and 1991 was estimated at “5.3 million people or 535 people per day.” Brutalized, targeted, and forced to emigrate to India or elsewhere, Hindus were then labeled as disloyal. Naeem Mohaiemen says, “In this sinister rhetoric, Hindus are leaving because they fail to integrate themselves with a ‘Bangladeshi’ citizenship concept. This helps foster an attitude of permanent ‘outsider’ status for the nation’s minority communities, further weakening the Bangladeshi state's commitment to diversity.”
Bangladesh now has a total population of approximately 158.6 million people, only about 9% of who are Hindus. The percentage of the Hindu community in Bangladesh has dropped from 31% to 9% (or less) in the span of 60 years. Prof. Barakat's study, “Living with Vested Property,” looks at official population statistics as well as local administrative office records. Prof. Barakat concluded that the Hindu population, as a share of the total population, dropped from 18% in 1961 to 12% in 1981, and finally to 9% in 2001. The decline was most pronounced in six districts: Chandpur, Feni, Jamalpur, Kishoreganj, Kushtia, Pabna and Narayanganj. In the districts that historically had high Hindu population (Khulna, Dinajpur, Faridpur, Sunamganj, Jhenaidah, Barisal), the average decline over forty years was 12%. Prof. Barakat also looked at the rate of population growth, checked the actual number of Hindus living in Bangladesh, and concluded that the total missing Hindu population from 1964-2001 was 8.1 million – a number equivalent to 218,819 missing Hindus each year. He believes that the pressure on the Hindu population to leave Bangladesh was primarily due to the Vested Property Act.
In 2011, the human rights situation for minorities in Bangladesh continued to reflect some of the positive changes HAF noted in 2010. However, incidents of gang rape of women and girls, murders, beatings, harassment, kidnappings, attacks on temples, looting of gold and jewelry, and illegal occupation of land persisted. These attacks constitute the daily litany of human rights abuses suffered by Hindus, tribal people, and to a lesser extent, Christians and Buddhists.
The continued attacks against Hindus and other minorities demonstrate the systematic use of violence as a means to intimidate Hindus and force them to leave Bangladesh. Hindus still face significant economic and social disadvantages with continued under-representation in government and military jobs. A comprehensive list documenting the atrocities committed against Hindus in 2011 is included in Appendix B. Consequently, the remainder of this section provides an overview of the nature and extent of persecution faced by the Hindu community in Bangladesh.
Islam and the Legal System
Bangladesh's Constitution gives preeminence to Islam over other religions. For example, as noted above, the Constitution proclaims Islam as the official state religion. Moreover, Article 8(1A) states that the fundamental principles of state policy and all actions are rooted in, among other things, faith in Almighty Allah. Section 2 further provides that the principles rooted in Almighty Allah should be “fundamental to the governance of Bangladesh, shall be applied by the State in the making of laws, shall be a guide to the interpretation of the Constitution and of the other laws of Bangladesh, and shall form the basis of the work of the State and of its citizens...” And Article 25(15) stipulates, “The State shall endeavor to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity.”
Beyond the Constitution, the legal system and courts apply Islamic law to Muslims in cases involving family and personal law. In addition, the civil court system’s reach is limited in many parts of the country, especially rural areas, where Islamic fatwas (Islamic rulings by religious leaders) are enforced in a wide range of matters through traditional dispute resolution methods. The types of punishments imposed have included whipping; lashing; publicly humiliating women and girls by forcibly cutting their hair or blackening their faces; ostracizing women, girls, and families; and imposing fines. Although a July 2010 High Court order banned the enforcement of fatwas and Sharia based extrajudicial punishments, the government has failed to take any credible steps to stop them. The promotion of Islam and Islamic law through these official and unofficial means undermines secularism in Bangladesh and threatens religious freedom in the country.
Attacks on Temples/Religious Sites
The right to worship free from physical attack or violence is a core principle enshrined in the concept of religious freedom. This right, however, has been repeatedly violated by Islamic extremists and the Government in Bangladesh. As in previous years, Hindu temples, festivals, and religious sites came under attack in 2011. In many instances, the Government and police failed to to take appropriate action to arrest and prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
The following recent examples illustrate the extent and scope of attacks on Hindu religious sites and symbols:
- At the start of 2011, the theft of large amounts of gold and money from the Dhakeshwari Temple, considered Bangladesh’s “national temple,” in the capital city of Dhaka, left the Hindu community deeply shocked and traumatized. Thieves also stole valuables from the Kadamtala Kali temple in Dhaka. It was reported that this theft from a Hindu temple was the 23rd such theft from city temples in the previous two months.
- A “Harinam Sankirtan,” a Hindu religious festival, was attacked in Sunamganj in March. As the police refused to take action, the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council organized a protest at the Shaheed Minar demanding the immediate arrest of the culprits to bring them to justice.
- An International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple was attacked and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita burned in Sylhet district in April, according to sources in Bangladesh.
- In April, a group of Muslims attacked a journalist, damaged a temple, and attacked several Hindu families in Ukiara village. Fortunately, police acted quickly and arrested 11 people. The attackers were men belonging to the ruling Awami League Party, indicating that Hindus are still targeted regardless of which party is in power.
- Reports indicate that a Muslim group carrying weapons attacked a Hindu temple – the Narayan Shiva Mandir -- in Khasa Pandith Para of Beani Bazar in Sylhet District on April 2. The attackers destroyed two Laksmi Narayan murtis, a Shiva Linga, as well as religious books stored in the temple. They made away with nearly 80,000 Takas belonging to the temple. The priest was also assaulted by the Muslim mob.
- In September, a temple dedicated to the Goddess Durga in Bandarban district was attacked and four statues/murtis were destroyed, according to a report in the Dainik Azadi newspaper. On the same day, another newspaper, Bhorer Kagoj, reported that jewelry and a Hindu deity were stolen from a temple in Patia town in Chittagong. Also in September, a deity being prepared for the Durga puja festival was destroyed in Narayanganj, according to the Ittefaq newspaper.
Attacks on Minorities
Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh face widespread persecution and religiously motivated violence. Government and police authorities have done little to protect minorities and are often complicit in acts of violence. For example, the commission probing acts of violence during the 2001 elections has confirmed the role of political parties in the violence. It is now estimated that over 26,000 people participated in committing more than 18,000 crimes, the majority of them against Hindus. Of the 5,571 complaints lodged with the commission, 3,625 were probed, and they included 355 incidents of political murder, while 3,270 involved arson, rape, looting, and other crimes.
In 2011, the Hindu community continued to be the target of violent attacks, though the numbers have slightly declined since the Awami League government came to power in 2009. Thus far, HAF has collected details on 59 incidents in 2011 (with incidents from December 2011 not yet collated). HAF reported 67 incidents in 2009, 306 incidents in 2008 (covering January to September), 270 incidents in 2007 (covering January to June), 461 incidents in 2006 (covering nine months), 480 incidents in 2005 (covering 11 months), and 399 incidents in 2004 (covering 11 months).
Violence against Women
Violence against women is a common weapon used to intimidate and harass minority communities across the world. It has similarly been used in Bangladesh as a means to attack Hindus. For instance, in the period immediately following the 2001 elections, approximately 1,000 Hindu women and girls were raped. Recently released figures put the number of Hindu women and girls gang raped at about 200. A commission inquiring into the 2001 violence has found that ministers in the Khaleda Zia government, and Members of Parliament belonging to the BNP and its Muslim extremist allies were involved in the violence against Hindus, including sexual violence.
According to a recent report from Global Human Rights Defence: “In Bangladesh, gang rape has become a major tool of political terror, forcing minorities to flee and has proven more effective than murder. The victims have all been women belonging to either of the ethnic/religious minorities. Neither little girls nor pregnant women and the elderly are spared. The perpetrators are men belonging to various branches of Muslim extremist political parties, including direct branches to the ruling party BNP (e.g. various student wing’s of BNP like JCD [Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal], Jubo Dal).” The report goes on to state that rape has been used to shame Hindu society and as a genocidal device to drive Hindus out of Bangladesh. In addition, government officials have failed to take adequate measures to prevent and prosecute such crimes.
The systematic kidnapping, rape, and murder of minority women, particularly young Hindu girls, continued in 2011. Rapes and kidnappings of Hindus are often accompanied by forced conversion to Islam.
Odhikar, a human rights organization, reported that in 2011 a total of 672 girls and women were victims of sexual harassment and assaults. Of them, 29 committed suicide, six were killed, 59 injured, 91 assaulted, 12 abducted, and 15 were the victims of attempted rape. In protesting against such attacks, 13 men were killed, 201 men and 39 women were injured, and three were assaulted by the attackers. It was encouraging, however, to note that a Division Bench of the Supreme Court asked the government to stop referring to these incidents of sexual assault as “eve-teasing,” an archaic term used not just in Bangladesh but in India and Pakistan as well.
Odhikar further reported that 771 women/girls were raped. In contrast, the number was 559 in 2010. Among those raped, 246 were adult women, 450 girls, and 15 whose age could not be ascertained. Of the adults, 54 were killed after being raped, and 119 were victims of gang rape. Out of the 450 young girls victimized, 34 were killed after being raped, 115 were victims of gang rape, and nine committed suicide. We note that in the numbers reported above not all victims were Hindu and not all perpetrators were Muslim.
Below are a few specific examples of incidents involving the rape and murder of Hindu women and girls in 2011:
- In February, a Hindu woman (32) was kidnapped and gang raped for a week in Boali village in Gaibandha district, according to a report in the Bengali newspaper Ajkaler Khabor.
- Two sisters, Anuradha and Boisakhi Saha, were kidnapped by Muslim men in February, but were rescued by the police, who also apprehended the kidnappers.
- On August 7, 17 year-old Mina Rani Das was killed after being raped in Gangkolpara in Brahmanbaria district. Her body was found hanging from a tree, and the incident reportedly occurred only 100 yards from a police station.
- An 11 year-old girl, Dipti Rani, was raped by a 35 year-old Muslim man, Mohammed Moshirul Islam, according to a report by the human rights observer for Bangladesh Minority Watch (BDMW).
- Shipra Rani (35) was hospitalized after being sexually assaulted by several Muslim men on November 17. She was on her way to school to pick up her child when she was attacked. As she tried to resist her attackers, she was battered and sustained injuries throughout her body. Shipra was also robbed of silver and gold jewelry she was wearing at the time.
Land encroachment is another major issue faced by the Hindu minority in Bangladesh and includes the illegal occupation of land, homes, businesses, and temple property. Initially instituted by the Government of Pakistan in 1965, the Enemy Property Act (EPA) encompassed a series of discriminatory property laws targeting primarily Hindus and tribal communities in the eastern portion of the country (Bangladesh). The Act officially designated Hindus as “enemies” and was used to confiscate land and property belonging to Hindus. Subsequently, after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the EPA remained in effect and was simply renamed in 1974 as the Vested Property Act (VPA). As a result, nearly 1.2 million Hindu families, or 44% of all Hindu households in Bangladesh, were affected by the EPA and its post-independence version, the Vested Property Act.
In an effort to return “vested” properties to their original Hindu owners, the Vested Property Return Bill (VPRB) was passed in 2001, and the VPA was abolished. But the Bill, the language of which remains relatively the same as the VPA/EPA and maintains the same discriminatory effect, brought little relief to Hindus, who continued to be deprived of their property in large numbers. According to a study by Abul Barkat of Dhaka University, nearly 200,000 Hindu families have lost or been robbed of 122,000 bighas of land (one bigha equals 1333.33 sq.metres/1594.65 sq. yards/0.33 acres), including their homes, in the six years since the Vested Property Act was annulled. The most recent legislation, the Vested Properties Return (Amendment) Bill 2011, intends to return confiscated properties to their original Hindu owners, but the government has not yet implemented its provisions.
Overall, Hindus have been robbed of a combined 2.2 million acres of land. At the current market price, the value of those 2.2 million acres is Taka 2.52 billion (US $36 million at a rate of $1 = 70 Taka), which is more than half of the country’s gross domestic product.
Land-grabbing in Bangladesh operates through a system of force and deception, supported and patronized by influential politicians and political organizations. Between 2001 and 2006, “[f]orty-five percent of the land grabbers were affiliated with the BNP, 31% were Awami League members, 8% were affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami and 6% were with the Jatiya Party and other political organizations.”
In 2011, there were once again several incidents of land encroachments, highlighting the enormity of the problem faced by minorities in general, and Hindus in particular. For instance, in one case, 1,000 betel leaf gardens on approximately 500 bighas of Hindu owned land (three bighas is approprixmately one acre) in four villages of Kaliganj upazila in Jhenidah district were intentionally destroyed in a fire, causing damage worth around Tk 200 million (about $3 million). The farmers alleged that the perpetrators set the fire to force the Hindu farmers to leave Bangladesh and use the opportunity to buy their lands at nominal prices. This was the fourth such attack in a few weeks, the Daily Star newspaper reported.
Similarly, in another incident, a number of influential Muslim individuals sought to illegally occupy land belonging to Hindus in Pngshia village in the Dumki subdivision. According to 50 year-old Meghnath Howlader, “An influential group led by Abdul Goni Khan has kept occupying our 0.60 acres of land for about 10 years. Sons of Goni Khan forcibly built a house on 0.16 acres of our paternal property. They are also looting crops from our 0.44 acres of land every year.”
Islamic extremism grew exponentially while the BNP-led coalition government was in power, including a proliferation in the number of madrassas (Islamic schools) and increased activity by radical Muslim organizations. Islamists have actively advocated the creation of an Islamic state under Sharia law. Notable among them are the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), an Islamist political party involved in attacks on Hindus following the 2001 elections; Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the youth wing of JeI involved in political and religious violence; and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), the largest militant Muslim organization in Bangladesh.
While it appears that Islamist militant groups are being monitored with more diligence under the current Hasina government, political parties continue to pander to extremists.
Constitution of Bangladesh
The Constitution of Bangladesh is designed to protect the human rights of all persons living in the country, regardless of race, religion, or sex. Article 11 of the Constitution explicitly states: “The Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed.” Article 28 further provides that: “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth,” while Article 31 declares that the protection of the law is “the inalienable right of every citizen, wherever he may be.”
Despite constitutional assurances of equal protection, minorities, human rights activists, and journalists continue to face violence and persecution. Rape is used as a weapon to subjugate and terrorize Hindu and tribal women. The Constitution also provides freedom of religion to all of its citizens under Article 41, which states, “Every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion [and] every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.” The attacks on Hindu temples, the destruction of Hindu deities, and the disruption of Hindu festivals are in direct violation of this basic constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Moreover, the recent passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, retaining Islam as the state religion, weakens the protection of religious freedom provided under Article 28.
Bangladesh established an independent Human Rights Commission in 2008 following the guidelines of the Paris Principles. The National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh was reconstituted in 2009 as a national advocacy institution for the promotion and protection of human rights. There are seven commissioners including a chairman, one full time member, and five honorary members. The Commission must investigate all violations of religious freedom and equal protection guaranteed under the Constitution.
In addition to Bangladesh’s constitutional human rights guarantees, it is bound by international treaties and customary international law. For instance, its accession to the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) occured on September 6, 2000. According to Article 2 of the ICCPR: “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Similar to Article 41 of Bangladesh’s Constitution, ICCPR Article 18 states, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” And most importantly, Article 27 maintains, “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”
Bangladesh has also agreed to the United Nation’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms for Racial Discrimination, which defines “racial discrimination” as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” Article 2 of the Convention states in part that “Each State Party undertakes to engage in no act or practice of racial discrimination against persons, groups of persons or institutions and to ensure that all public authorities and public institutions, national and local, shall act in conformity with this obligation.”
Far from being protected, ethnic and religious minorities in Bangladesh continue to face harassment, violence, rape, and eviction from their lands and homes with little or no corrective action by the police and civil government, in violation of the above Conventions.
The right to property, equal protection under the law, and freedom of religion are also some of the basic norms and principles that are widely recognized and accepted as state practice by most civilized nations around the world. Therefore, the Bangladeshi government is further culpable under international customary law.
Bangladesh was created after the India-Pakistan War of 1971, which was preceded by the massacre of an estimated two to three million East Pakistani citizens, and the ethnic cleansing of nearly 10 million Bengalis (mostly Hindus) who fled to India. The Hindu population in Bangladesh has steadily declined over the years, from 31% in 1947 to 9% or less today. During the reign of the BNP-led coalition government, Hindus became increasingly vulnerable with the ascendancy of Islamist parties and radical Muslim organizations.
As stated in earlier reports, the Bangladesh Government must implement the following recommendations in order to significantly improve the human rights situation in the country. Rabindra Ghose (aka Rabindra Ghosh), a Bangladesh human rights activist, has discussed the necessary steps to address the large scale encroachment of Hindu owned land. These steps are listed below:
- A list containing details (name, address, amount of land and other assets dispossessed by type and year of dispossession, and current status) of those affected by Enemy Property Act (EPA/VPA) must be published by the Government;
- All activities related to the identification and enlistment of any property as vested must be banned;
- All vested property under government custody must be returned to the original owners or their legal heirs who are permanent residents of Bangladesh;
- Property must not be seized from any non-Muslim in Bangladesh under the vested property administration if the owners of the property or their legal inheritors are in possession of that property;
- All 99 year leases of vested properties must be declared null and void, and the ownership rights of the original owners or their inheritors restored;
- All vested temple property and places of cremation must be un-vested and brought under public trust;
- The law of inheritance must be enforced with adequate provision for inheritance by female heirs.
HAF also supports the recommendations of the International Bangladesh Foundation (IBF), a British group led by Lord Dholakia and Lord Avebury, to improve the human rights situation in Bangladesh. IBF has urged the following initiatives:
- That the Government of Bangladesh establish an Inspectorate of Madrasas and close down those which are being used to incite the commission of criminal offences and communal hatred;
- That the Government of Bangladesh ensure the independence of the Judiciary and prevent and reverse party politicization of the police, administration, judiciary, and other important institutions;
- That the Government of Bangladesh repeal the 5th and 8th Amendments of the Constitution;
- That the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord of 1997 be implemented and the demographic transformation of the CHT under military occupation be ended;
- That the Government of Bangladesh, in accordance with the constitutional rights of the people, provide equal rights to all minorities;
- That an international civil society network be established to monitor the progress of Bangladesh towards compliance with international human rights standards, to make representations to governments, and the UN Human Rights Commission and to hold further meetings.
As noted in HAF’s prior annual human rights reports, attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh constitute the most serious threat to the Hindu community anywhere in the world. It is hoped that the Hasina government will work diligently to turn back the tide of violence and discrimination against minorities in Bangladesh and establish a Minorities Commission to address their needs.
The United States and other donor nations must also demand accountability from the Bangladesh Government, and all aid to Bangladesh should be contingent on the improvement of the human rights situation.